For nearly all of her 25 years of marriage to an Army colonel, Doe Barker says, she dutifully cris-crossed the United States and Europe packing and unpacking as the family moved from base to base and as her husband moved up in rank. As an Army wife, she endured many short and long separations from her husband, who did two tours of duty in Vietnam, each 13 months, and a 12-month tour in Korea. During her marriage, Barker moved 23 times, mostly in this country but also to Germany and Taiwan.
In germany, she recalls, she attended four to five meetings a day, including the commissary board, the school board, the german-American Club and the Officer's Wives Club. After the meetings came the parties, where she entertained other officers and their wives. She even sewed buttons on uniforms for unmarried enlisted men.
When her husband became a base commander, her social duties expanded rapidly and she was continually involved in a broad range of social and charitable activities, including parties for orphans, United Way campaigns and working with other wives.
"The family and I never stayed behind. We always went with him, even in the middle of the school year. My son never even went to the same school two years in a row." she says. "All my husband's Army reports said we were the epitome of 'The Army Family.'"
Last April, Doe and Rex Barker were divorced. Rex Barker remarried and went on to another post.Doe Barker, at 44 feeling jilted and jolted, moved with her son, now a college student, from the comfortably appointed base commander's home at the Army depot in Tobyhanna, Pa., to a small $13,000 house in Leesburg.
Doe Barker now works on a nearby farm, pitching and selling hay, driving a tractor and helping to load corn into grain bins. It is hard work but Barker says she is thankful for the job because she is too distraught to go back to her former job as an interior decorator.
She earns $250 a week, for 50 to 60 hours work, and receives $700 a month from her former husband, an amount that will be reduced $100 a month each year until it is eliminated under the terms of their divorce settlement. Barker's former husband, contacted at Fort Monmouth, N.J., declined to comment.
Although the plunge form the perquisites and responsibilities of rank to manual labor on a farm is an extreme case, Barker is one of an estimated 150,000 former military wifes who, upon divorce, find themselves disenfranchised from the comforts and security of an organization they say demanded and extracted as much from them as their spouses.
When they are cut off from their husbands -- generally in mid-life and after 20 or more years of marriage -- they also are cut off from all military medical benefits, the right to be named beneficiary on their former husband's military life insurance under the Survivor Benefits Plan and all the post exchange (PX) prvileges that made life a little more bearable -- cut-rate shopping and recreational facilities.
In many cases, they are denied a share of the husband's pension by courts that do not consider pensions part of a family's assets when dividing up property in the divorce settlement.
They are often deemed too old or ill to get civilian medical insurance and the nomadic life of military families brands them as poor job risks. Consequently, it is rare that a military wife can hang onto a job for the 20 or more years needed to build her own pension.
"When our husbands were on active duty," says Nancy Abell, president of Ex-Partners of Servicemen for Equality (EXPOSE), an organization formed to lobby Congress on behalf of former military wives, "we were pretty much told, 'You support this man, make sure he's happy for the good of the country and we'll take good care of you -- all you're benefits, your medical coverage, the retirement check that will be coming in at the end of his career.' That's sort of held up as the pot of gold. But, of course, what they never pointed out along the way was that if the marriage ended up in divorce, you'd be left without any of these benefits."
What particularly galls many military ex-wives is the fact that, if their former husbands remarry, their new wives automatically qualify for all the special benefits even though the new spouse may have contributed nothing to the husband's career.
"We feel we've really worked for our country, too," says Abell, a Falls Church resident. "And for us to be left out in the cold at the end of 20 or 25 or 30 years and have everything handed to another woman on a silver platter, leaving us with nothing . . . is a very unfair situation."
"We have women on welfare, women getting food stamps, women with no medical coverage who have had heart attacks or have cancer," adds Abell, who is separated from her husband, a retired Air Force colonel to whom she was married 26 years.
"And this is the way our country has rewarded all these years of service. Granted we weren't in the military ourselves, but those men could not have performed their jobs and defended this country without the help of these women. This is what we're trying to put across to [the Department of Defense]. We have earned these benefits -- not the wife who comes after he's retired."
Congressional efforts are being made to assist former military wives.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) has said she will reintroduce a bill for prorated retirement pay and survivor annuities for ex-wives who were married to servicemen at least 10 years.
The legislation, Schroeder has said, is "based on the premise that, among other things, marriage is an economic partnership and that a spouse makes a significant contribution to the military employe's ability to successfully go through the ranks and consequently receive a pension."
Among other legislation expeced to be reintroduced include bills authorizing the military to pay an ex-spouse court-awarded shares of a serviceman's retirement pay and extending medical benefits to ex-spouses who were married to servicemen for at least 20 years.
The Defense Department has fought the medical benefits proposal, claiming it would cost $45 million a year. Cmdr. John Wanamaker and Capt. Henry Palau, legislative counsels for The Retired Officers Association (TROA), said their 283,000-member organization has taken no stand on the medical benefits plan or on proposals that a servicemen be allowed to name his ex-wife as the beneficiary of the Survivors Benefit Plan. But the organization opposes mandating shared pensions and also is against the direct payment of alimony and child support by the service branch.
Courts should be able to use their discretion on pensions, says Wanamaker, adding that while there have been injustices for ex-wives, "some husbands made general in spite of their wives."
"A man has an obligation to support his spouse and children and even his former spouse," adds Palau, who is also TROA's legal counsel. "Our problem is not with support, but with automatic distribution formulas [set by law]."
EXPOSE, which has about 300 members nationwide, counters that federal help is needed because state laws vary so much and ex-wives have considerable difficulty tracking their former husbands from state to state. They also note that while a military paycheck can be garnished for alimony and child support, collecting is a time-consuming and costly process.
Winnie Cowan, vice president of EXPOSE, who was married for 37 years to an Army officer who eventually retired at the rank of brigadier general, says, "It used to be that a military man would never divorce because it could go against his record and ruin his career. But with the introduction of no-fault divorce and the changing attitudes of society, the military man is going along as well as the rest of the population."
Even when alimony is awarded, she notes, alimony ceases when the former husband dies. So without some guarantee of income from the former husband's pension or income from the Survivor Benefits Plan, there is little assistance for the military divorcee.
"In most cases, courts don't compensate the military wife for the loss of all these benefits," she adds.
It is argued, she continues, that the ex-wives can always draw Social Security when and if the husbands retire and draw on it. But, Cowan notes, the level of income is meager and amounts to a startling decline in the ex-wife's standard of living.
"We are a rare breed of women which is rapidly fading," Cowan says, as she fields telephone calls from other military wives across the country who call in shock and disbelief when they discover the benefits they are about to lose. "Women whose husbands are in the military now should stop and think because if they're planning on those benefits they better think twice because they're not going to get anything if they're divorced."
Abell, who has been working with Cowan on an EXPOSE newsletter, says: "[The military] deliberately keeps women in the dark about what happens because, naturally, if they did know, they wouldn't follow all these men all over the place . . . .
"They're having a hard time retaining young officers because women have their own careers now and when they find out what's happening at the end of the road, they're not willing to give up their careers and follow these men all over. The whole caliber of the military is going to change."